Music Theory: the 12 (half) step program

I have been working on music theory when I get the chance. There are some truly stunning patterns in music theory. An octave is the doubling of the wave’s frequency (in Hz) from the previous octave. The octave is then further divided into 12 half steps that make up the scale.

Half steps are the adjacent keys on a piano. Since the adjacent keys to the middle “C” are “B” on the lower side and “C#” on the higher side, we would say that the “B” is a half step down, and the “C#” is a half step up. With these divisions, all the notes that make up an octave are as follows:

Half Steps Interval
Name
Example
(Key of F)
Example
(Key of C)
Example
(Key of G)

0

Root note

F

C

G

1

Minor Second

F#/Gb

C#Db

G#Ab

2

Major Second

G

D

A

3

Minor Third

G#/Ab

D#Eb

A#Bb

4

Major Third

A

E

B

5

Perfect Fourth

A#/Bb

F

C

6

Augmented Fourth

B

F#Gb

C#Db

7

Perfect Fifth

C

G

D

8

Minor Sixth

C#/Db

G#Ab

D#Eb

9

Major Sixth

D

A

E

10

Minor Seventh

D#/Eb

A#Bb

F

11

Major Seventh

E

B

F#Gb

12

Octave

F

C

G

It is important to commit the number of half steps and their interval name to memory, but you don’t have to memorize the “Example” column since the notes it contains depends on which note you use as a root note. It is the pattern itself that is important. The example column is only used to show that each note is a half step above the previous.

Timbre

Ask a simple question, and get more information than you would ever want to know.

339px-champagne_flute_and_bottle
Image originally posted by Dan Kamminga. Copyright cc-by-2.0

I have been learning to play the chromatic harmonica. Compared to most of the people that I visit with in my forum, I have a different preference. Many of them like the sound of the Hohner chromatic harmonicas. I, on the other hand, like the sound of the Suzuki chromatic harmonicas.

To each their own.

The problem arises in my trying to describe the difference between the two. That leads me to timbre (I know, I know… it’s pronounced TAM-ber). It seems to be customary to describe timbre in relation to color or, perhaps, shade. For example: It can be either light or dark. It can also be bright along with a whole slew of different adjectives. What I am having problems with is putting those adjectives on a scale so that I can have a common frame of reference with other people.

Perhaps it is because I am also color blind, but I can’t make heads of tails over whether one tone is brighter or darker than the other. I can hear the difference, but I can’t find someone to lay out which is brighter or darker than the other. When someone tries, they just substitute different adjectives in place for brighter and darker. That doesn’t help me.

Them: Banjo v.s. guitar: do your hear the difference? One is brighter than the other.

Me: Great! Which one is brighter?

Them: Obviously it is the one that sounds happier.

Me: That is singularly unhelpful.

I have now listened to hours of YouTube video about the different timbres and colors of sounds and I am not a single step closer to answering the question which sounds brighter – or happier – than the other.

So, in the tradition of substituting adjectives in place of brighter and darker, I am going to substitute a phrase into the description that has meaning to me. Hopefully, someone will come along and put this entire timbre/color mess in its proper perspective for me.

So here it is:

I think the Suzuki harmonicas sound more like a finger slowly circling the top of a crystal champagne flute producing a bell-like tone. On the other hand, the Hohner harmonicas sound more like pissed off bumble bees after they have had the contents of the crystal champagne flute thrown on them.

Ending the year with music

The end of my year took an unexpected turn toward music. It started innocently enough; I wanted something to occupy myself with while I sat at my computer and pondered what to write next. My first consideration was a John Scalzi standby instrument: the ukulele.

I do most of my writing from a portable location, and that made a ukulele unpractical. Even as small as they are, they can be cumbersome to carry around.

After months of thinking on the problem and running into several dead ends (guitar, recorder, flute, trumpet) it occurred to me that I might learn to play the harmonica.

I ended up buying two different harmonicas. I bought a cheap one at a local store to play while I was waiting on the better instrument to arrive. One thing that I can tell you is that, if you really want to play one, you should invest at least $30 in a good instrument. Anything less and you are just getting a toy that is almost impossible to play.

I purchased the first harmonica on December 3, 2015 and the higher quality harmonica arrived through the mail on December 5, 2015. Now I realize that you probably don’t care when I actually purchased my harmonicas, but it is a date that I hope to remember so I can see how they have served me over time.

After I got my harmonica, my wife started talking about how she always wanted to play the piano. Granted, I had heard her say that before, but I always assumed that her desires were more along the line of I-always-wanted-to-do-that-as-a-kid-but-I-would-never-do-that-as-an-adult type of desire. Over the course of the month, I learned that she still had the desire, but she didn’t think that she would ever actually get the chance.

We purchased a portable piano keyboard and set it up so that she could play it at the house. I would love to say that it was a Christmas present, but honestly Christmas just seemed to get in my way. It took me longer to have the keyboard shipped in due to the glut of shipments around this time of year, but it finally got here. Her keyboard arrived at our local post office just before noon on December 26, 2015. I made a hasty trip to pick it up and spent the next hour assembling it.

Best. Present. Ever.

She has been playing it nonstop since I finished putting it together. When I had to go to bed, she plugged the headphones in that came with it and continued playing while I slept.

The house might be filled with “Mary Had A Little Lamb” and songs of that caliber for a while, but I can’t think of a better way to ring in the new year.